French President Emmanuel Macron opened the door on Tuesday to withdrawing some troops from Africa’s Sahel region, saying France could “adjust” its operations after successes against Islamist militants and the arrival of more European forces.
France, the former colonial power, has the West’s largest military presence waging counterinsurgency operations in Mali and the wider Sahel, an arid region of west Africa just below the Sahara desert.
Last year, Paris boosted its troop numbers for its Barkhane counter-terrorism operations by 600 to 5,100 soldiers.
“The temporary reinforcements that I decided to deploy have enabled the Barkhane force to put in great difficulty terrorist groups, which find themselves cornered and reduced to cowardly acts,” Macron said in his annual New Year’s wishes to the military.
“The results obtained by our forces in the Sahel, combined with the greater intervention of our European partners, will allow us to adjust our effort,” he said, referring to the arrival of special forces from various European Union countries in recent months.
Though Macron hailed successes against militants, the situation remains fragile. Five French soldiers have been killed in Mali this year and four U.N. peacekeepers were killed there last week.
Militants linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State have strengthened their foothold across the region, making large swathes of territory ungovernable and stoking ethnic violence, especially in Mali and Burkina Faso.
Diplomatic and military sources have said France is expected to announce a partial withdrawal by mid-February. Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly has said Macron and regional heads of state will discuss the situation at a summit in Chad next month.
An opinion poll published last week showed for the first time that the majority of French people oppose the operation in the Sahel. That has put pressure on Macron to consider a bigger withdrawal before a 2022 presidential election.